The non-linearity of novels

A ‘review’ of sorts on a couple of books I’ve read. Actually less of a review but a long-winded description of an observation made after reading them.

I’ve been doing a fair bit of unacademic reading for the past few months and though I don’t feel more cultured or genteel, I have noticed something common about ‘good’ novels written over the past decades. Though we’re well past the modernist age and all that it represents (and some might even say that we’re living in a postmodern age, something that I’d vehemently deny), there are a number of modernist elements in the books I’ve read and I’m a little intrigued at the current way in which stories are told nowadays.

Gone are the linear stories of old where the start of the book is the start and the end of the book is the end and what happens in between leads the reader from the former to the latter. Nothing complicated about that process though one can’t say the same about the plots and characters in question. Authors (and their readers) probably felt that the plots and stories were too important for us to mess around with and so put things in a fairly chronological order. Flashbacks and references to the past were clearly stated and described. This ain’t the case no more.

Modern novels on the other hand are decidedly non-linear both spatially and temporally and can for an old-fashioned bloke like me, be a little disorientating. I’m not quite sure why so many modern authors don’t seem to like good old-fashioned storytelling but to the best of my memory, most of the recent award-winning books share this trait of non-linearity. Good novels seem to have to be non-linear to be considered good.

It could be the way we think these days – the short attention span and the ability to multi-task have changed the way people like to read. People may not like long narratives in the style of the classics but stories that are chopped up, re-ordered and otherwise made to seem less of a story than a mish-mash of narratives that are strung together in some strange order. And it’s that strange, cleverly constructed order that distinguishes the novel from another. Perhaps the stories in themselves are not as important any more and how they’re put together becomes so. Some have even gone on to say that there are no new stories any longer, merely retellings of the tales that already exist.

While I’m not so sure about the bit about there being no new stories, I would agree that the craft of the storyteller has become a little more complicated. I’m fond of a more straightforward style but can see the beauty in the way the different narratives are juxtaposed and layered to bring forth a particular idea or feeling in the reader. A clever author like Michael Ondaatje in The English Patient used the non-linearity to slowly reveal the histories of the characters, allowing the readers to form certain opinions about them before showing us their past and how their paths intertwine. Milan Kundera used non-linearity to contrast pre and post Soviet Czechoslovakia and how that affected the various characters in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I liked that book for the extremely lyrical way in which Kundera described even the most banal feelings and thoughts. Lastly, Kiran Desai in her Booker Prize winning book The Inheritance of Loss used the temporal and spatial non-linearity to show how the characters built up the sense of loss and alienation.

I’m not doing any of the three novels any justice with the one-line summaries but it was through the reading of the three in fairly quick succession that one realised how many popular and award-winning novels tend to be of this type. One wonders how novels will be in a couple of years time – and the hedonist in me will definitely continue to enjoy reading them. After all, one can only take so much academic reading no?


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about the brushhead

had a head like a brush (it's more like an egg now). seeks to sweep through thought and faith with that brush. tries to wax philosophical but often forgets to wax off. trying to be good brush to all, while discerning what kind of brush he's meant to be.

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